Teaching Catholic Social Thought through Global Service-Learning

June 12, 2012

By Rachel Tomas Morgan

All institutions of higher education have to answer questions that arise from challenges to their larger social role and their particular educational aims. Yet by their very existence, faith-based universities are also obligated to the institution’s founding and historical religious tradition, which distinguishes them both from other faith-based institutions of higher education and from secular universities.

Faith-based institutions can be and arguably should be self-conscious about how they teach and the values they seek to cultivate in their students, while at the same time remaining committed to the pursuit and sharing of truth and to full and free inquiry expected of all universities. Unsurprisingly, many faith-based universities embrace service-learning because of its outreach and contributions to local, national, and global communities, its promise of more effective teaching and learning, and their institutional aspirations to shape students’ minds and hearts in social responsibility and critical awareness of social issues.

In a longer paper authored for an upcoming book, Paul Kollman, C.S.C. and I explored a number of critical questions that arise in connection to international service-learning (ISL) when it is pursued at religiously affiliated (or faith-based) universities, a topic largely overlooked in service-learning literature. I provide a briefer discussion of our keys points to follow.

The fields of service-learning, ISL, and global service-learning (GSL) helps students face questions arising from their experiences honestly, but the field as a whole can further encourage habits of critical reflection on their deepest convictions—many of them faith convictions—that in turn can shape their commitments to social justice and their emerging global citizenship. Many institutions already strive to make their service-learning part of the process of their “faith seeking understanding,” as St. Anselm defined the task of theology (1965). This is, however, admittedly difficult terrain to negotiate. At any given university, not all students and faculty are necessarily religious believers.

In the face of diverse beliefs among faculty and students at Catholic affiliated colleges and universities, Catholic social teaching as a resource can help to bridge social analysis and faith commitments, since many of its deepest principles have broader spiritual and humanistic appeal. As GSL invites students to consider their worldviews, Catholic social teaching can help to meet students where they are while also exposing them to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry to assist their interpretation and analysis. As this Faith & Service-Learning Series attempts to demonstrate, the field of GSL as a whole may be better served to more deeply consider such theological resources across differing faith traditions.

For those unfamiliar, Catholic social thought is the thinking about and teaching of the social mission of the Roman Catholic Church and community on matters that pertain to poverty, the economy, labor, justice, war and peace, nuclear weapons, racism, human development, role of the state, and role of the Church. Catholic social teaching per se is accepted Catholic teaching within the tradition and refers to the collection of Papal encyclicals, conciliar documents, and episcopal letters written to call the attention of the faithful to challenges and difficult social questions of the times, and have served throughout history as inspiration and guidance for social engagement. Several key themes emerge from the entire corpus and are known as principles of Catholic social teaching. They include but are not limited to life and dignity of the human person, preferential option for the poor, and the common good, among others.

Service-learning is employed most desirably and with greater frequency in Catholic institutions of secondary and higher education when teaching courses that deal with the Catholic social tradition. William Bolan’s chapter in New Wine, New Wineskins (2005) has helpfully outlined how community-based learning (a term he prefers to service-learning) parallel emphases within Catholic social teaching, so that service-learning “when practiced effectively and conscientiously …provides a way to realize both the pedagogy and the ends of Catholic social teaching” (p. 116). Bolan identifies several ways in which such synergy is achieved. First, by bringing participants close to the marginalized, CBL helps to promote the fact that those suffering from social injustice are human persons, and that the “other” is really “neighbor” and “brother or sister,” something that many of our students often say.

By putting a human face behind the social problems studied, CBL creates learning that reduces stereotyping and enhances appreciation for diverse cultures, moving beyond tolerance to solidarity that is at the heart of Catholic social teaching. In the 1978 encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis: On social concern, Pope John Paul II defines that solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many, both near and far. On the contrary, it is the firm and preserving determination to commit oneself to the common good: that is to say to the good of all and to each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (n. 38). Second, by making students aware of the reality and extent of social problems, CBL encourages them to accept that they have a duty or obligation to do something about them. Suggesting perhaps that the problem of poverty forms a paradigm for the Catholic tradition’s approach to social change, he again quotes John Paul, “The motivating concern for the poor must be translated into all levels into concrete actions, until it decisively attains a series of reforms” (n. 43).

Third, beyond just helping students see the reality of social problems, GSL can encourage awareness of the systemic nature of problems. Fourth, CBL strives after reciprocity or mutuality between the partner organization and also strives to make sure that service-learning fills a community-identified need, something that resonates in the Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity which insists that the most competent persons to understand and frame answers to social problems are presumed to be those most involved with them (Bolan, 2005, p. 109).

As Catholic colleges and universities seek to be good citizens in their local communities, as well as to serve the global common good, global service-learning programs and courses not only offer faculty and students a powerful pedagogical experience and deeper insight into contemporary global realities; they also offer models for how universities as institutions can become good citizens of the variety of communities they engage—locally and globally. Furthermore, Catholic social tradition and social analysis inspired by that tradition together provide a critical and analytical lens through which students are invited to interpret an array of global issues.

In a review article on faith-based service-learning some years ago, Garry Hesser (2003) claimed that service-learning had helped religious universities recover the riches within their own faith traditions. “[S]ervice learning,” he wrote, “has brought about a renewed interest in the social teachings that are grounded in, and evolving from, their respective faith traditions” (Hesser, 2003, p. 67). The same has been true at Notre Dame through GSL programs and courses. At a time when many faith-based universities also seek to manifest their religious identity more fully while maintaining or increasing their academic standards, this experience suggests that GSL represents a potent resource for both individual students’ aspirations and the emerging missions of religiously affiliated institutions of higher education. Other traditions besides the Catholic Church have distinct social principles and spiritual insights to assist students to connect service and justice, as well as religious narratives to help make service-learning an ally in pursuit of greater institutional integrity at their universities.

In the same article, Hesser also contended that faith-based universities had the potential to serve the larger service-learning field due to their long experience of seeking to impart to their students a sense of social responsibility. Their religious resources, he believed, meant that they had a potentially deeper stake in moral formation than secular universities, and thus perhaps more long-term viability in successful service-learning due to these foundational religious commitments.

Time will tell if Hesser’s inkling about the comparative advantages of religious universities over their secular counterparts in fostering service-learning was well-founded.

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Rachel Tomas Morgan is Assistant Director of the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame and oversees the Center’s international engagement strategy and efforts.  She can be reached at rtomasmo(at)nd.edu.

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